My parents were married in a courthouse, but they eventually renewed their vows in a church. It was a private occasion, just themselves and the minister who my father liked so much, it was almost enough to wrench him from Sunday morning soccer matches on the telly to attend his weekly sermon. My parents are not a splashy couple, when they married in 1980, my mother wore a dress she pulled from her closet, and they had their reception in their apartment. Benjamin and I also married in a courthouse, and I wore a dress I pulled from my closet. Though I was in New Zealand, and they were in Canada, I felt connected to them: “This is how my parents got married”.
When they renewed their vows, my father wore his nicest jeans, took my mother out for a nice lunch, and then went to work the afternoon shift as custodian at the junior high school. Before he left for the night, he played “Have I Told You Lately that I Love You”, and danced my mother around the kitchen. To me, that story says everything about not only their relationship, but their incredible work ethic–they take a moment for themselves and then went back to the business of being breadwinners and parents to four children.
When you’re a child, your parents are not human beings with a ‘pre-you’ history. As a teenager, you think that they are aliens from Planet Buzz Kill, put on earth with the sole purpose of getting in the way of your pursuit of a good time. As an adult, when the self-centeredness of youth has been scrubbed away, you make the startling, humbling realization that this whole time your mother has been a woman and your father has been a man. Their legal names are not ‘mom’ and ‘dad’; they are both complex individuals that live in a private world that you know little about. Time and time again they put their children before themselves, spent years working opposite shifts. Now that all four children have grown, and spread out into their own places in the country, my parents have discovered a new-found freedom. My father now works the day shift and is home every evening. They’ve since taken holidays and when they went to California in recent years, it was the first time they had been on a plane together. I was living in Australia when they took that trip. I sobbed with gratitude at the sight of their tanned and smiling faces; they finally got to relax after so many years of sacrifice and hard work.
When I was first in University and living briefly with extended family, my maternal grandparents came over after a follow-up with my Nana’s doctor. The news was quite dire, and as I was processing the concept that my grandmother had breast cancer, I caught a glimpse of them in the darkened hallway. They were standing slightly apart, talking quietly, and then they both made a gasping, sobbing noise and threw their arms around each other as if were both drowning, and the other was a buoy bobbing in deep dark waters. This was the first time, as I was approaching adulthood, that I realized that my Nana was not just a grandmother, but she was somebodies wife. She did recover and they have been married over sixty years. Now well into the winter of their lives, they have this incredible affection for one another that keeps them warm.
My father had surgery the other day, and had to spend a couple of days in the hospital to recover. My husband and I went to see him on the first evening. He was lying in bed, floating happily along on post procedure pain meds. He was scooping up the remnants of a Shepherd’s Pie that he had acquired by sweet talking a nurse with his wonderful Welsh accent. My mother, in her smart blazer and tucked in t-shirt, well-dressed but exhausted, concern etched across her face. We chatted for a short while and then excused ourselves to let him rest. I returned the following afternoon. My mother is in a new outfit, equally as smart as the day before. All the other visitors and caretakers look like downright slobs next to her. They both look exhausted, and homesick. All four beds in the room are occupied, the other three men are hocking up phlegm and the thin cotton curtain does nothing to muffle the noises of moaning, groaning and coughing. It also, as we soon discovered does not block smells as the stench of excrement from my father’s neighbour, forced us from the room. I stepped out first, to allow my mother the help my father from the bed. “Miss…miss? Can you bring me a couple of bedpans?” I look around me and back at the man in the bed across from me. “Sorry?” I ask—just to clarify his question. “Bedpans, I need bedpans”, he repeats. “Okay…I’ll do what I can for you”. I respond, and go out into the hall to look for a nurse. I relay this to my mother as we stroll through the hallway. I wonder aloud why he would ask me. “I think he’s blind”, she responds. “Oh…well that makes it a lot less funny”, I mutter, my shoulders slumping in disappointment. Hard-pressed to find some humor around these parts.
Finding a home-cooked meal, a good night’s sleep and a scrap of dignity as a hospital patient can feel like a mathematical impossibility. My mother has made it her mission to ensure that her husband is as comfortable and dignified as possible. She moves deftly around the bed, refilling drinks and bringing the cup to his lips, adjusting pillows and straightening blankets, placing her cool hands on his forehead, taking a compress on his face and hands to soothe him. In her performance of these tasks she is saying “I love you, I love you, I love you”. In the way he accepts her care, he is saying “I know you do, I love you too”. Watching this puts an inexhaustible lump in my throat—even the blind man from across the way can see how much these two are in love. For a moment I see them not as my parents, but as a husband and wife, trying to make some light in a terribly dark place. This is marriage at its best when it feels like things are at their worst–you feel scared and exhausted, so full of love and fear that you would gladly trade places with your spouse so they would never again feel any pain. I think about the moment in the hallway, when my grandparents clung to each other, and I see that now in the hospital room and it is then that I realize: love may not have the ability to cure, but it will always have the capacity to heal.